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I started my teaching career with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in 1988. I had been a student in the district for my entire K-12 education and joined as a teacher just after finishing my bachelor’s degree through a “District Intern” program.

District Intern was a credentialing program run by the district and authorized by the state. No prior experience was needed; the main requirements were having a bachelor’s degree, and successfully passing both the California Teacher Skills test and what was then called the National Teachers Exam. Additionally, teachers needed to have a certain number of credits in the field that they would teach in. This requirement, of course, led to many bizarre situations, since your degree did not have to be in the subject you were teaching, as long as you had the minimum number of units.

Before entering the classroom, new teachers completed a three-week orientation right before the school year started, and throughout the year were required to participate in a weekly two-hour class during the first two school years, as well as a one-week follow up training following our first year.

Now, not to let a poorly-kept secret out of the bag, but things were pretty bad in LAUSD in 1988. The district was desperate to get teachers into classrooms, especially STEM classrooms. The teacher training was inadequate to say the least. Science teachers received next-to-no instruction or preparation specific to their content area. What little training we did get was biology-oriented only. As an additional disappointment, we were not paired with a more experienced teacher to serve as a mentor as we embarked on our first year in the classroom.

I found that for the majority of our “training” time, we discussed district procedures and paperwork. I spent a good deal of this time complaining to the guy in the seat next me (he is still one of my closest friends today) about how we could do a better job training and supporting teachers. It was at that point that I (in some Pollyanna fashion) became determined to do something better to support incoming science teachers in the future.

Fast-forward four years, and it was time to put my money where my mouth was. I contacted the credentialing program and, along with two of my colleagues, a biology and physics teacher, offered to host a half-day session for science teachers. We held a workshop for new teachers about “Presenting Effective Demonstrations,” as described in Shakhashiri’s Chemical Demonstrations, Volume 11. It was a big hit, and they asked to have us back.

Making an impact through teacher training

Over the next 15 years, I taught countless training sessions for both new and current chemistry teachers on topics such as, the mechanics of running lab experiments, teaching using demonstrations, maintaining a stockroom, and how to prepare solutions for labs. In the process, I discovered several areas of instruction where the district’s training resources that were incredibly weak, or even non-existent.

The most glaring of these weaknesses was the lack of training for chemistry teachers in laboratory work and stockroom management. Most of the beginning teachers knew which experiments to do in their classes. But they didn’t know other important details, like handling material setup, managing student traffic flow, and preparing the reagents. Also, we found it important to show them how to prepare a lab for use over the long term — determining how to best store and dispense chemicals, and how to organize them for easy access in future years.

During my first year of teaching, I was invited to a meeting for local high school chemistry teachers by a former teacher of my own. The purpose was to bring the teachers together to share their favorite labs and demonstrations. The meeting was a success, and I was struck by the passion of my colleagues.

Most of the presentations lasted no more than 10 minutes and presented a single idea. The focus was on very practical things that we could take back to our classrooms and use whenever we got to the specific topic. I found that to be the most worthwhile experience that I attended during my early years of teaching.

The next year and those that followed, I also served as a presenter. While there were a few years when the meeting sadly didn’t occur, it has since been reestablished as, “For High School Teachers, by High School Teachers” with the support of a local college. In my opinion, the best source of learning for a classroom teacher is another classroom teacher — and I encourage you to look for opportunities to organize something similar in your own local area.

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Meaningful mentorship

Based on my contribution to teacher preparation in the school district, I was given the opportunity to serve as a teacher-mentor for several science teachers, and even an English teacher. This was a paid position with a formal set of duties that helped first- and second-year teachers through the credentialing process.

Although I was apprehensive about mentoring an English teacher, I quickly learned that he really only needed guidance in general ways, like classroom management, rather than content-specific assistance. The ironic part is that he went on to teach Theatre, and used much of what he learned from watching me run labs to help him with running his theatre classes.

While serving as a mentor, I learned a very valuable lesson that I hope all of my readers will take to heart. Since I observed many lessons in this role, I came to realize that while you can learn a lot from watching a good teacher, you can learn even more by watching bad teaching! Every time I was watching a poorly-executed lesson, I found myself reflecting, and wondering if I was doing any of these things. It was quite an eye-opening perspective, and the answer was sometimes yes. So I encourage you to visit another teacher’s classroom on a regular basis — you’ll learn and grow.

Asking for help

The bravest thing I have ever seen a teacher do involved admitting their own weakness. I first experienced this when the teacher who had taught in the room next to mine for 25 years asked for help. It happened during a school year when he was unexpectedly assigned to teach a period of AP Chemistry. This teacher had a background in biology, and had become a very adept chemistry teacher — but he had no experience with the AP curriculum.

One day, he came to my room and flat-out asked me to teach his AP Chemistry section that day (during my planning period). He admitted he did not understand molecular orbitals (a hard topic even on a good day!) and needed to see someone else explain it, so that he could learn it along with the students. It takes great courage to admit your weakness, but even more to admit it in front of your students and ask someone else for help. I obliged and his relationship with his students grew immensely. They truly understood he was human and had his own weakness, just as they did.

In another experience, a veteran teacher, who was new to my school, had a degree in biochemistry but had never taught chemistry. He was very talented and had successfully taught many general science classes during his career. The school asked him to switch to five chemistry classes a day for the new year. He agreed, and on the first day of school he showed up in my room to watch during his planning period. It seemed to me that he had a truly enjoyable time that day, and came back the next. In fact, he did not miss a day the whole year! He became a member of the class, did the labs, had a student lab partner (lucky kid) and taught his own classes one day behind my schedule. This was an incredibly enjoyable situation for me, as well as for him. It was great to have a second voice in the room to bounce things off of. He also was not hesitant to provide me with feedback, which in turn improved my teaching.

When it comes to mentoring, I have learned some very important lessons over the last 30 years. First and foremost, I’ve found it important to understand that whichever teacher I am working with is not just like me. The jokes, examples, and stories that I tell are very good for my classroom — but they do not always translate well into someone else’s classroom. It is essential to encourage teachers to be themselves, and to find their own comfort zone. Secondly, I’ve found that it is valuable for teachers to discover their strengths and weakness through a series of well-crafted questions. For example, I spend a great deal of time asking teachers, “What do you want to accomplish with this experiment?, What do you want the students to leave this discussion with?, and What is the real theme of today’s lecture?” Making a teacher think deeply about their motivation for any lesson is very valuable.

In conclusion

To sum this up, the most important thing a teacher can do (I think) is build up a support network of local teachers to work with. I think this is especially important for those teachers who might be the only chemistry teacher (or even the only science teacher) in their school.

I encourage you to spend time helping (and being helped) by your colleagues, and consider using social media to expand the reach of your network. It will be quite beneficial in the long run. And as Dilbert says, “Be a team player, it helps diffuse the blame.” Remember that isolation is not a productive state for a chemistry teacher. So reach out to your local schools and see if you can create a local support group.

References

  1. Shakhashiri, B.S. Chemical Demonstrations, Vol. 1; University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI, 1983; pp. xviii-xix.


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